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Opinion: Columnists

Time to get rid of the TSA

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Transportation,Columnists,Veronique de Rugy,Homeland Security,National Security,Analysis,TSA

Federal airline security oversight has a long track record of failure. Few people know that prior to Sept. 11, 2001, four different federal agencies -- the FBI, CIA, FAA and INS -- were entrusted to protect commercial airlines. They clearly did not do their jobs. Why, then, has the federal government further nationalized the process?

After the 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress rushed to create a new agency to protect America's planes, trains and trucks. The Transportation Security Administration enabled the federal government to control the screening of passengers and baggage at all but five of the 429 U.S. commercial airports. Eleven years and billions of dollars later, the TSA has mastered the art of the grope but falls short on increasing security.

Throughout the TSA's existence, the 62,000-employee bureaucracy has been constantly inundated with complaints about its performance. Several reports from support travelers' concerns. In July, the Government Accountability Office reported almost 10,000 cases of employee misconduct at the TSA between 2010 and 2012. Outrageous anecdotal stories -- like tales of TSA agents frisking teary-eyed children, forcing travelers to remove prosthetic limbs, and even interfering with elderly passengers' feeding tubes -- fuel discontent among jet-setters. But do the TSA's invasive methods even make us safer?

Many analyses suggest that the TSA provides “security theater” instead of security. another recent GAO report assessed a program intended to identify and apprehend terrorists based on behavioral patterns and concluded that the $200-million-a-year program isn't working and should be ended.

So what is the TSA good at? In 2011, the TSA proudly thwarted birds, turtles, science projects, and Chinese throwing stars -- but no terrorists. Embarrassing, but perhaps not surprising: Research from the RAND Corp. suggests that cockpit security, passenger vigilance and passport verification are the most effective security procedures. Given that the TSA spends two-thirds of its budget on ineffective, expensive passenger- and baggage-screening procedures, it is easy to see why the agency is better at catching turtles than terrorists.

TSA incompetency is an easy target for late-night talk shows but the agency's troubles are no laughing matter. Not only is it ineffective, it is incredibly wasteful and expensive. Since its creation, TSA's budget increased from $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2002 to $7.9 billion in fiscal year 2013. To that amount, we need to add the $606 billion in estimated lost tourism revenue from unreasonable procedures over past decade. What's more, many TSA agents have been caught stealing travelers' personal items and squandering budget money. Waste is rampant: another GAO report shows that agents intentionally lower productivity to raise wages -- and ultimately increase costs on taxpayers.

It is also a lot of money for an agency whose main role -- preventing attacks in the style of Sept. 11 -- has already been generally accomplished. Cockpit barricades, passenger vigilance, and passport screening are already implemented and effective at lower cost. What about baggage screening? If the TSA prevents terrorists from bringing explosives onto planes, wouldn't this be worth the cost? Even here, the TSA fails; there is evidence TSA agents do not systematically check bags for explosives.

Indications of the TSA’s wild incompetency and runaway spending have grown so numerous that they cannot be ignored. It is time to de-nationalize airline screening and turn it over to private companies motivated by profit.

As Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute writes: “Studies have found that TSA's screening results have been no better, and possibly worse, than that of the private screeners. And a House report in 2011 found that private screeners at San Francisco International Airport were far more efficient than the federal screeners at the Los Angeles International Airport.”

It is also worth noting that private screeners are used at all Canada's main airports and in about 80 percent of Europe's airports.

The desire to protect airborne Americans is noble and necessary, but the TSA is a step in the wrong direction. If politicians care more about security than they do about power, they will privatize airport screening.

Veronique de Rugy, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a senior research fellow of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
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Veronique de Rugy

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The Washington Examiner